The new world facing Colin Powell

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For an administration that entered the White House with a policy of distancing itself from direct Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, George W. Bush’s people seem to have made a major change in course. The U.S. president himself is routinely meeting with leaders from Middle Eastern countries, his CIA director is personally involved in cease-fire negotiations in Palestine/Israel, the very able Ambassador William Burns has been working hard as a special envoy to the peace process, and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is on his way to the Middle East this week for his second visit to the area.

This sudden American re-engagement in Arab-Israeli peace-making raises important questions about the role of third part mediators in this conflict, and the particular credibility of the USA. It is only one of many parties that are trying their hand at mediating between Palestinians and Israelis, others being the European Union, Russia, Turkey, Jordan and Egypt, Sweden, and the United Nations.

The fact that so many parties are working diligently to promote a permanent peace accord is testimony to the real dangers that this conflict could pose to the wider Middle East. The last nine months have clearly shown that the fighting in Palestine/Israel will intensify if left in a diplomatic vacuum, and that its repercussions will spread in the form of anti-Israeli sentiment in most Arab countries. This in turn can develop into anti-American sentiment, and also into destabilizing forces in some Arab countries.

The United States remains the only credible third party mediator because it is the only party that has any influence in Israel, and Israel is the occupying power in Palestine that has to budge in order for permanent peace to prevail. All the other mediators can play useful, limited  roles in exploring assorted dimensions of the conflict and in the implementation, monitoring, or financing of any agreements that are reached. But the hard diplomatic work of bringing about a comprehensive peace accord will remain an American monopoly for a very long time, for good or for bad.

The last nine months of low-grade warfare between Israelis and Palestinians have radically changed the nature of the mediator’s task. The most significant and successful previous mediation and facilitation between Israelis and Palestinians were carried out variously by Norway, Sweden, and the United States, resulting in PLO-Israeli-American diplomatic contacts, the Madrid peace talks, the Oslo accord, and subsequent implementation of some Oslo accord interim measures.

Those efforts achieved some serious progress towards agreement on a comprehensive, permanent peace accord and an end to the conflict between Israelis and Arabs. But those big aims of ending the conflict have been overtaken now by the new cycle of fighting and mistrust that defines Palestinian-Israel relations. Mediation now aims modestly to bring about a cease-fire and to disengage Israelis and Palestinians, hoping that this would somehow lead the way to implementing agreements already accepted by both sides (namely Oslo, Sharm esh-Sheikh, Wye Plantation).

Resolving the conflict for good is no longer a realistic short-term goal, given the hardening positions of both sides. Permanent peace will have to wait some years, it seems, until a measure of trust and confidence can be re-established between Israelis and Palestinians. The nature of the fighting means that primary control of the diplomatic process has reverted to the two principal protagonists in Israel and Palestine. Sharon and Arafat, and the Israeli and Palestinian people, are negotiating through the fighting on the ground. This would appear to make the mediator’s task much more narrowly focused on short-term, limited goals, rather than long-term strategic ones. The Bush-Powell-Burns combination is working in a totally different world than the one inhabited by Clinton-Albright-Ross.

The critical nature of the situation on the ground, and the changed role of the mediator, both suggest that the United States now should urgently review its own mediating history and the experiences of the others who tried their hand. Most specifically and importantly, the U.S. should go back and grasp why its mediation at Camp David II failed last summer, and what is required now in the mediation business in order to achieve more modest successes in those diplomatic arenas where grandiose aims failed last year, with such momentous consequences.

Colin Powell & Co. face a totally new world out here in the Middle East. They should make sure that they have a more effective and impartial approach to mediation, if they hope to succeed where their predecessors failed. They will succeed if they treat both sides equally, work to end the occupation and implement UN resolutions and international law, and promote the security, sovereignty, and dignity of Israelis and Palestinians, who have the same right to live as equal, secure, friendly neighbors. They will fail if they give more urgency and importance to Israeli security and rights than to Palestinian security and rights. We hope they succeed, and wish them luck.

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